Thursday, February 9, 2012

What does God think about Romance?

Perhaps I'm asking this because Valentine's Day is coming up. It's not my conscious motivation though. I think it's coming from the fact that we have been reading a lot about Ps. Dionysius's influence on St. Thomas' Summa Theologica... but I did start dating Anne-Marie around this time of the year... Aaaaaw.

I often ask this question when we come to speak about the passion of love in the Summa (we are not there yet). Aquinas asks some interesting questions about it. In question 28 of the "first part of the second part" of the Summa, he asks:

1. Is union an effect of love?
2. Is mutual indwelling an effect of love?
3. Is ecstasy an effect of love?
4. Is zeal an effect of love?
5. Is love a passion that is hurtful to the lover?
6. Is love cause of all that the lover does?

I find this especially interesting because he was writing in that very peculiar age of the courtly romance (Dante lay not too far off in the future). How was Thomas influenced by them? Was he? - he seems so serious? They were serious too, those love-mad troubadours, but not about the same things he was. Now, if you have studied my bio page on Blogger, you'll note that I included the worst offender of all as one of my favourite books, Dante's La Vita Nuova. This is basically a poem which recounts the history of his love for Beatrice. I got to tell you, you'll either love it or hate it. People are often surprised by the fact that I love it.

I find romance such an odd creature. Ask my wife, I'm not all that romantic. No, don't.

And yet...

If you know anything about the Catholic mystical tradition, you know that the fave book of that hunta was the Song of Songs, ever since Origen, and all the way up to St. John of the Cross.

It is about intimacy and passion. It is deeply sexual. Monks being interested in it screams sublimation, and that, I think, is okay. But - and hopefully you'll never have to endure the literature I had to endure on this subject while I was a history undergrad at Dalhousie - there is a line that needs to be drawn. Those feminists we were forced to read loved to describe St. Theresa of Avila's mystical experiences as orgasmic, for instance. They weren't conscious of any other part of man than the material, it seems.

So passion can be Christian. Q.28 above is devoted to the passion of love, not the virtue (which is dealt with in the second part of the second part of the Summa). Not only can passion be Christian, but Christians must have passion,and not only passion as the general ability to feel things, but they must be passionate too. Book 14 of City of God has Augustine's important description of the goodness of emotions.
But with romance we aren't taking about any passion, we are talking about one particular passion - is it a good one? How is this type of love different from love in general? Is it any better than the deep love certain people have for hockey, or stamps, or birds? Is Dante no better than a British soccer hooligan? Many people would say unequivocally, that, yes, romantic love is better, but there is, indeed, something sometimes rather disturbing about Dante's conduct towards Beatrice, and Young Wurther's conduct, and Romeo's, etc. In fact, I think - though not an expert on this either - that the Divine Comedy includes at least one sound chastisement of Dante's love addiction. Is that what romance is in its most advanced form - addiction to love, something along the lines of Augustine's ridicule of love for sake of love?

Is love sexual addiction? Is it intense emotional insecurity? Or is it, as Hollywood have us believe, as well as the Bronte sisters, the highest state of existence?
It is not surprising that Aquinas distinguishes between the ecstasy attached to love of God and that of friendship (in which he would include romantic love, if he employed the term, which he does not). He does not believe that this romantic love is the source of special knowledge or a higher state of being. That he reserves to the love of God. For love of friendship is about pleasure in oneself, not the transcending of self. He is quick to refer to "violent passion and madness" here. But even a superficial reading of people like Dante would note that they are intent on eliding the love of the human beloved and the love of God. Is this a way to escape Thomas' 'condemnation'? Why does Thomas make the distinction between the effects of the love of God and that of the human beloved? Because they are objects with effects: when God loves He draws one up beyond what the person is capable of by nature; on the other hand, a person cannot do that. But cannot God be loved in the great good that can be present in the love of one person for another? Yes, surely. But is this what occurs usually? No.

What can we say, does human romantic love usually or usually not elevate the person to God? I would say it does have that positive aspect as a part of it, but the more irrational it becomes the less does this remain true. So, I would say that those cases of mad love are not healthy and are not religious experiences. But we would do just about anything to hang on to them - wouldn't we? - even so far as to defy the divine command.

Happy Valentine's Day!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry, I meant 'football'.

    If the question is seriously meant, I was wondering if Dante's love madness is just that, an irrational madness (redundant). If you read La Vita Nuova I thing you will see that it is, as we moderns say, 'unbalanced.' Someone who gets so 'into' something as to loose focus on anything else is not is a healthy state, and yet we admire these people on the big screen or in novels.